Coffee House Discourse # 1

by Tom Wolpert on March 29, 2019

Coffee House Discourse # 1, in which  a Vagabond Appears.

Coffee houses are staging areas for a broad variety of activities, including rants, raves and discourses from the patrons. These spring forth, unbidden, for the benefit of anyone who happens to be sitting nearby drinking an espresso, threads in the tapestry of coffee house background ambience. No revolution was ever launched without at least one heated discussion in a coffee house or its local equivalent. In the spirit of ventilating my theological-political visions to anyone listening, sitting around metaphorically in this coffee house of grace, I launch the following extended discourse, mad-poet style. This comes with its own invitation – issued by all those who discourse and debate in coffee houses, offered to anyone who happens to be wandering by, cappuccino in hand – to engage with me, to comment, agree or disagree, expound or expand, to ignore me, or to digress loudly about your own topics of interest. I will be your mad religious visionary-poet, if you will be mine.

All of this should be understood to be taking place with the background noises of clattering cups, the smell of strong coffee and mild incense, of steamed milk, of overheard orders spoken at the cashier’s station, people wandering by looking for the rest room, half-eaten sandwiches sitting on tables recently vacated, chess players kibitzing, emotional couples in booths whispering audibly about their relationship, singles on benches with bright, inquiring eyes, writers resting after a morning of work, tentative tourists bunched in groups standing in the order line and looking for atmosphere, music filtering in with bongos from street musicians playing outside, guitar music playing over loudspeakers hidden behind open-rafter interior designs, disheveled bookshelves of poetry, low-key traffic crawling along the street, pedestrians considering the menu posted on the plate-glass front window, an occasional jogger passing swiftly outside, and everything else that makes coffee houses messy and interesting. Shadows, both light and dark, pass among the patrons.

The sea is wild and restless – the sea is a separator. Who will deliver us from the sea, the heartless sea?

Pass over the pregnancy, the gestation, the delivery. At the age of 29, I read the words “I am the bread of life,” and God revealed himself – Jesus revealed him to me at a specific place, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and time, late October, 1980. God was present, up close and personal then and there, speaking to me. It was a revelation to me, but not only for me. We believers travel as a group. We were tourists in the Kingdom of God, but now we have been initiated, by faith, by grace, by revelation, by the Word, hidden for long ages past, but now at the present time, made known. We travel as a group, we work out the Revelation, we take a cue from a Beat Poet, On the Road we go, to build, and find, a heavenly city. Our highway is calling, our highway is baptized, we hitchhike with the angels, our City comes down out of heaven from God. Not just for another world – for the world we are in right now, complete even to its coffee houses.

There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Nothing that God does is static; everything moves under the power, the compulsion of God, as dynamic as a river. Revelation is about things that are past the final judgment, distant into the future. Revelation is also about things that approach us swiftly, that we invoke every time we repeat, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” John saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. She was prepared as a bride, beautifully dressed for her husband. The loud voice accompanying this vision, coming from the throne, did not say – ‘look deep into the future’ – but rather “It is done! Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.”

We are baffled on the highway. Do we say “now” – or when we say “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” – do we mean into a future so far different than ours, that there is no immediate bridge except death itself? There is still most certainly death, mourning, crying and pain. The old order looks pretty solid. “I am making everything new,” says He who was seated on the throne.” But the old order hasn’t budged. The signs on the highway lead in two directions.

We’re in doubt. The coffee house has a shadow, and so does the highway – do we have a right-now direction, or a much-later direction? Like Moses with the children of Israel, let’s build a booth on the highway, a tabernacle of sorts, and wait patiently for a visitor, who may decipher the signs and point the way. I remember once hitchhiking in the Midwest – because of some detours or construction, the highway signage was completely inscrutable – I was hitchhiking on a road that was marked North Highway (whatever) and also marked South Highway (whatever). I didn’t want to go north or south; I was headed west. It was most puzzling, but there I was.

There was an Old Testament figure named Habakkuk, who had serious and severe questions himself, directed to God. “How long will I cry for help, and you will not hear? How long will I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and you won’t save me? Why do you make me look at evil and injustice, but you do nothing at all?” Those are serious questions. Our questions on the highway are serious too. ‘You do nothing at all,’ – that is a serious charge, to level at God. After some time, Habakkuk gets an answer, but not the one he expected.

“Look, and be utterly amazed,” answered God in reply. “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and violent nation, to sweep across the whole world.” Habakkuk is a little stunned. God has ordained a wicked people for judgment, the Babylonians, to inflict punishment, and not just in Israel. Perhaps that answered Habakkuk’s first set of questions, about violence in Israel. Indeed, such violence would be addressed thoroughly. But if Habakkuk had questions before, now he really has questions. A whole new set of questions, set in motion by an answer far outside the scope of his expectations.

So we find ourselves, rather like Habakkuk, milling around on the gravel shoulder of a highway, looking at signs we can’t interpret, hoping for a ride that hasn’t appeared, traveling in some direction beyond our focus- and like Habakkuk, we have questions. Still, we are not here entirely along. As Bob Dylan once sang to Woody Guthrie, “I’m out here a thousand miles from my home, walking a road other men have gone down.” Other travelers have gone looking for answers. Other wayfarers have observed the world to find out something about it and themselves. As Dylan would sing it, with some youthful wisdom, “it’s about a funny old world, it’s sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn, it looks like it’s dying, and it’s hardly been born.” At least my confusion has company. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” said Jesus, if that helps. But it doesn’t unravel the immediate question – the Kingdom, the Heavenly City, now, or later?

The signs are still contradictory. What did Habakkuk do? “I will stand at my watch. And station myself on the tower. I will look to see what he will say to me, and how he will answer my complaints.” Well, Habakkuk’s declaration is a plan at least – our little building project for a tabernacle on the shoulder of Highway 61 Revisited has the imprimatur of an Old Testament prophet. Jimmy Hendrix will sing to us as we build, electric guitar blazing out ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ covering Dylan.

“Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl,” concludes Jimmy. But maybe our visitor will not be as grim and foreboding as all that. And Habbakuk gets another answer, starting with a firm directive, an order from On High, “Write the vision and make it plain.” Perhaps we will be able to stop trying to interpret the uninterpretable, trying to read highway signs which blend what doesn’t yet exist with what does. We may receive a revelation plain and visible, a map fluttering down from heaven. If we do, then we could be on the same page with God – ‘make it plain on the internet,’ commands the Lord, ‘so that any hitchhiker or hobo may be guided, so that any pilgrim may be directed.’ Hab. 2:2, slightly paraphrased, as any good hippy would do.

Yet, the revelation awaits its time, it speaks of the end. Possibly we’re just too early here. Some future generation will come along, and it will all snap into focus for them. But as we are turning away, discouraged, thinking to retrace our steps back to the safety of the humdrum, the unadventurous, the world of Popcorn John and everything that is fashionable and acceptable and correct, where of us it will be said that “we’re very well read, it’s well known” – perhaps we pause. The religious visionary, the madman poet of the coffee house, ranting and raving to anyone who will not turn away, hears a voice. “If it seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come. It will not delay. The just man, will live by faith.”

Hmmmmm. We look back at the confusing signage. The evidence of our senses is starkly contradictory. What does that mean – “the just man, will live by faith?” There are some judgments going on here as well – we have been distracted from them, by our own problems. “Bad news for him, who builds a town on blood. Hard times, for him who builds a city on lies. What’s the point of heaping it all up – the Lord throws it into a fire – everybody is tiring themselves out for nothing.” That is certainly a message an old hippy, left-over from the summer of love, could agree with. Right on, man. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea.” I can dig it.

But we’re still on the highway. Is this happening now, or later? Do we work for it, or do we wait? Well, “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.” Not a bad plan. Maybe we should just shut up for a while. And Habakkuk appears to have done exactly that. So if we have to sit by the highway in silence, if we sit by the confusing road signs quietly, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

We can look around our highway. See the asphalt, see the painted white lines, see the crumbling edges of broken-off asphalt and the gravel and stones. See the steel highway curbs built to keep cars veering off over the side of the road, down the steep embankment. See the green trees, the vibrant green and drooping brown leaves, the relentless shrubs. Smell the diesel fumes, the gasoline, the rubber. Feel the sun bouncing down on us and off the black asphalt. See the corrugated steel posts that display flat white metal signs with their stark black lettering. See a shuttered highway fruit stand a quarter mile down the road. See the wispy clouds parked overhead. Feel the breeze, carrying fumes, carrying other fragrances as well, pine and mud and water from some stream invisible. Sit on our haunches, sit on the steel curb fencing, stand and mill around, stretch. Wait for a ride. I have spent time this way, waiting for a ride. There are small copses of trees set off by themselves, varieties of pine and birch, and small patches of grass, clover and weeds. There is a look to a highway, when you are waiting there, waiting for cars and trucks to come by, waiting for a ride. The hills and cliffs to our left climb up, to a ridge we cannot see.

Although it’s dry now, the paths of stormwater that come down from the hills during a thunderstorm have made bent-down paths in the grass and weeds and small shrubs, making a surface channel for the rainwater heading toward the highway and down the embankment. Further down the highway, there is a grate for stormwater drainage and an invisible wide pipe running under the highway, to appear on the other side in a culvert. The pipe and culvert lead over a concrete bed made for the stormwater, leading it further down still, over riprap stones, to an invisible creek, that itself leads to an invisible river, that flows into an invisible ocean. It all exists, I know, whether I can see it or not from my highway crow’s nest.

“In anger, remember mercy,” says Habakkuk, in his next prayer to God. Perhaps our confusion, our abandonment, on this highway is also a sign of God’s anger. In anger, remember mercy. Habakkuk is getting a memorable answer. God is often depicted these days as somewhat akin to the Easter Bunny. Jesus is often depicted as the Big-Hippy-from-Palestine-who-never-finds-fault-with-anyone’s-conduct-as-long-as-it-is-sensitive. Hmmm. I like sensitive, and I am pretty positive on Easter chocolate. But maybe there is something else to grasp here. Because half of the highway signs point in the direction of the old order of things – tears, death, mourning, crying and pain. I am connecting the command – ‘Let all the earth keep silent” – with the Babylonians, appointed for judgment, and the old order. My little booth in the wilderness of a highway shoulder is starting to take some shape, my little intellectual structure near the sign that says “Death, 15 miles,” is beginning to have some definition. The just man will live by faith. Where does that go? I have the verse in my hands like a block of concrete, wondering where to lay it down. Wow, man. Heavy.

Habakkuk recites a history, a poetic history of the acts of God and the power of God. “He stood and measured the earth. He looked and shook the nations.” Then Habakkuk’s vision of judgment and history is extended again. “I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction. The curtains of the Land of Midian trembled.” There are visions coming to Habakkuk now, visions in a stream, visions in a downpour. “Thou did bestride the earth in fury. Thou didst trample the nations in anger.” Wow, again. Fury. Anger. Where did the Easter Bunny go?

Standing around on the highway shoulder, confused, it’s starting to get a little late, a little concerning. The sun is going down. Maybe life is not all makeup, marijuana and money. Down, down, down, down, down, sings the heavy metal band. Like, I’m getting a picture man, that the concrete verse, “the just man will live by faith” is fitting into a very heavy set. The sun is getting a little lower on the hill. A dusktime warbler is beginning to sing a song too.

Choose, choose your way, traveler – not without fear and trembling, though, and a sickness unto death. The old order signs are not liars. My legs are trembling, death rot has entered my bones and my thoughts. The intellectual structure is taking a shape that is not exactly what I had in mind. I was planning something more along the lines of ‘think happy thoughts’ and strolling on the astral plain and zen whatever. Apparently, the old order signs are telling me something too, a bit more grim.

But now, Habakkuk says something weird, about the violent, greedy, marauding, murderous, conquering Babylonians, that bitter and hasty people: “I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.” A sign of the old order, but there is something about quiet waiting that seems to have changed in Habakkuk. He wasn’t interested in quiet waiting with the demanding tone of his first questions – those were accusations with a question mark. Weirdly enough, with quiet waiting, his structure is getting built. Essential pieces have fallen into place. I sit down in my little booth at the edge of the highway. The sun is growing quite low indeed. But another warbler has joined the first, and their song is becoming quite astonishing now. It sounds as if they are whistling jazz.

Lost or not, we will have to pick a path. We need a visitor, another vagabond coming down the highway. But this vagabond, this hobo, is like the wind himself. The holy Ghost-Beatnik, who goes withersoever he will, is not seen, he casts no shadow. He shows up on the highway, for reasons of his own. “Unless I go away, the holy Ghost-Beatnik will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.” So said the Son of God, about to take a road trip that no one could follow.

In an instant, more piercing than air-brakes, more nimble than a hummingbird, darting through our little tabernacle, we finally get the Word, we finally get the Vagabond News.

Though the highway apple trees are bare,

And there are no grapes to steal,

Though the winter has come and the farms are deserted,

The fields are empty, naked, abandoned,

The fruit stands are shuttered,

The wind blows through broken down stables, forlorn and collapsed,

Though the highways signs are scrambled and madness,

Though our direction is haunted by fear and doubt,

Though we ask ourselves questions, questions without end,

is it all something that, once long ago, we made up for fun?

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will take joy, in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength,

He gives me strong feet, like a mountain goat,

He helps me to climb up the steepest hills,

To read the most obscure signs,

To walk the highest turnpikes,

To reach a city, that has a fountain,

The water of life, that needs no payment,

That exists in this world, our world, that we can reach.



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